Vocation as Martyrdom
Dr. David Luy
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
When a hurricane approaches the coast of Florida, wise coastal homeowners make diligent preparations. For a Midwesterner — I grew up in Illinois but visit my in-laws in Miami twice each year — it is a rather strange scene to behold as locals brace themselves for crisis with no visible indication of impending calamity. Where I come from, stapling plywood to window frames when it is partly sunny with a gentle breeze is not generally considered normal behavior. Floridians behave in this manner because they know something about the destructive force of a hurricane. They know from experience it is foolish to ignore the approach of a severe storm with glib indifference. They also know that the best time to prepare for a hurricane is precisely before it hits, while the sun is still shining and everything looks fine. Prudence sometimes requires behavior that appears strange to one’s neighbors.
Christians are called by God to bring their lives into alignment with theological truths and realities, many of which are likewise opaque to present experience. Doing so can be a struggle, for the world, the flesh and the devil tell us a very different story about what is true and what is real — and they insist it is utter foolishness to forsake their counsel. It is not easy to obey God when wickedness seems to prosper (Psalm 73). It is not easy to trust God when enemies mock, saying: “where is your God?” (Psalm 42). It is not easy to hope in God when it feels as if the “right hand of the Most High has lost its power” (Psalm 77:10). A life aligned to the reality of God sometimes looks (and feels) rather strange indeed.
The erosion of cultural incentives in support of Christian self-identification in the late modern West is forcing the church, and individual Christians, to decide in a more acute manner than perhaps ever before what we truly believe to be most real. Sometimes the choice confronts us in dramatic moments of decision which call for heroic faithfulness. So it was for Ignatius of Antioch, Perpetua, Polycarp, Nicholas Ridley, and Richard Wurmbrand, men and women who decided in their own historical contexts it was better to suffer and even to die rather than to renounce Christ for the sake of transitory comforts. More often, the question concerning what is most real is processed at the level of what we might call “life trajectories,” the daily rhythms, patterns, investments and priorities which give shape to a person’s story.
With this, we come to the doctrine of vocation. Vocations are durable trajectories of faithfulness carried out within particular fields of activity — Christian faith lived out as a neighbor, as a physician, as a mother, as a teacher, as a citizen, and so forth. The concept of vocation serves as a salutary reminder that the Christian life is not simply a matter of isolated decisions aggregated from one moment to the next. It involves what Eugene Peterson has somewhat famously referred to as a “long obedience in the same direction.”1 The doctrine of vocation also teaches us that a life of alignment with the reality of God and His plan of salvation need not be achieved at the cost of flight or escape from the world. Christ died for the world, and He summons His followers to lives of responsible service to the world, often precisely in the places where God’s grace has found them.2
Christian vocations can be understood as a kind of martyrdom in the sense that they bear witness — often in costly ways — to the reality of God and His coming kingdom in the midst of one’s neighbors. The concrete shape of an individual’s vocation will differ in all sorts of ways from one context to the next. But all permutations of authentic Christian vocation will share in common a certain, characteristic strangeness. A life lived in subjection to the rule of a crucified king will inescapably find itself out of step with the values and priorities which govern the present order which passeth away (1 John 2:17; 1 Corinthians 7:31).
Our natural tendency may be to prioritize extraordinary instances of Christian faithfulness such as the examples of heroic self-sacrifice mentioned above. It is right to celebrate such stories, but in doing so we must not fail to recognize, and to acknowledge the depth of cost and the potency of witness generated by the quiet resolve of “ordinary” saints who seek to configure their lives to God over long expanses of time. Bo Giertz offers a helpful reminder in this respect.
“[The] true saints look very small in the eyes of the world. Their hands are callous from coarse everyday work, their time is occupied with trivial chores, and their silently done great deeds are not suitable some sensational witness in a general meeting. They do not see their saintly glory in the mirror. They require a lot of forgiveness and suffer from weakness. Yet they have known their Lord and loved him. Yet all around them there has grown up a generation that cannot doubt that God lives.”3
May the Lord grant each of us strength and courage by His Holy Spirit to live in such a manner as bears powerful witness to our neighbors that God is real.
Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Reader’s Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 290.
Bo Giertz, A Shepherd’s Letter (Irvine: 1517 Publishing, 2022), 139.